Had fun writing this piece. Going to watch Kabali today.
You don’t go to a Rajinikanth movie for the plot. You go for the comfort it gives
To understand the hold that Rajinikanth has on his fans, you have to meet my ex-driver, Robert. An archetypal Rajini fan, Robert dresses, walks and talks like Rajini. Conversations with him are a triumphant reminder that while English is the language of logic and analysis for us Indians, our mother tongue is the language of the heart. It is Tamil that I turn to when I want to plead or persuade. And like many of our great vernacular tongues, Tamil lends itself to exquisite hyberbole. What passes of as conversation in Tamil would sound like a film dialogue when restated in English.
Robert quit working for us for two reasons: he wanted to open a restaurant and he was tired of my accusations that he was drinking away his salary every time he came to work with red eyes.
“Modom,” he told me. “I follow Rajini. Not just me. My whole family. Yes, I did drinks. My father got spot out in a lorry accident because of drinks. My mother asked me for a promise from her deathbed. ‘Dai, Robert,’ said she. ‘Give up drinks.’ But I couldn’t. Not then. But when Thailavar told that drinks is bad, I quit immediately. On the spot,” said Robert just before he quit.
It was Robert I turned to when I wanted first-day-first-show tickets for Kabali in my neighborhood Lavanya theatre. I was tired of all the trainers in my gym crowing about snagging tickets. I called every theatre in Bangalore, Chennai, and every town in a 400 kilometre radius, pleading for a ticket. They laughed—like Rajini, I might add. And like how, I, in unconscious imitation of Thalaiva, laugh.
“Even God cannot give you a ticket to Kabali,” said one particularly uppity lady from Abirami Theatre in Erode. “Why God? Even Thalaivar cannot get you a ticket. Ahh-hahahaha.”
I could imagine her rolling her eyes heavenward, like Rajini does when he laughs. I looked heavenward for guidance. God sent me an image of Robert.
Robert knew the moment he saw me waiting outside his children’s school at 8 a.m. He tried to escape by pretending he hadn’t seen me. I appeared like Rajini as he made the turn into Coles Road. I stood in the middle of the road, planted my feet apart, removed my sunglasses and twirled it around my finger. Unlike with Rajini, my sunglasses fell on the road and cracked. That is why Rajini is Rajini—he wears sunglasses to protect the sun from his rage. My sunglasses crack and cry with a mere twiddle of my thumb.
Robert, without his wife, Mona-darling (actually, that’s not her name), braked his moped in front of me and sweated.
“Robert, you have to make a sacrifice,” I said without preamble.
“Modom, ask me for my blood. Ask even for my children’s blood. But don’t ask for this. I fall at your feet.”
“Remember, Robert, you owe me Rs. 30,000. You said you wouldn’t forget. Well, this is your chance to remember. I want those tickets.”
“My wife will kill me,” said Robert sullenly. In that moment, I knew I had him.
“It isn’t the first show. I can only give you one ticket.”
Why do we love the things we do? Certainly it is not an objective exercise. It is not even about taste. Rajini movies for me, aren’t really about plot, character or cinematography. They are about ethos, dialogues, predictability and Rajini-style. They are about how Rajini says his character’s name, whether it is Padaiyappa or Arunachalam or Basha or Muthu. I love them all for complex contradictory reasons that have to do romance, nostalgia, and yes, loss of a stage of life. Rajini is a way of connecting with the patch of earth that I call home.
For a man with two daughters, the chauvinism inherent in Rajini films makes my blood boil. His heroines play to every traditional stereotype, beginning with their names. I mean, who names their daughters Kumudavalli (heroine in Kabali) or Tamilselvi (in Sivaji) or Ranganayaki (Muthu) these days? The names set the tone for the character. Rajini heroines speak softly, dress demurely, jump if a man appears near them, and don’t look a lover in the eye. Come on. Are you telling me that Rajini raised his daughters in this fashion? And how do his two girls put up with this? An assertive woman with spunk is cast as the villain in his films. Ramya Krishnan played this role unforgettably in Padayappa and almost stole the show from the superstar. But you don’t go to a Rajini movie for its stereotypical heroines or predictable plot: Rajini is a poor servant or don, with a heart of gold. He kills all the villains and snags the girl. That about covers the storyline of pretty much every Rajini movie. You go to a Rajini film for the comfort it gives. Europe may be going to hell in a handbasket. Christine Lagarde may liken Brexit to 1914 when World War I started. America may be caught in the throes of a fulminating childish narcissist who thinks the country is like a giant Legoland where fences can be erected. But all is well in Rajini land. The good are good, the bad are bad, and the women are sweet and don’t answer back.
Watching a Rajini movie in a multiplex is a total waste of time. Its pleasures come from the “tharai-ticket” or floor-seats, where you are caught in the warm embrace of other rabid fans who are whistling and screaming so loud that you can barely hear the dialogues that you know by heart anyway.
It will be the same at Lavanya theatre. I know the drill with every Rajini movie. There is a thumping irrational exuberance when the screen comes to life. The unabashed whistling and shouting. I take earplugs, and they aren’t much help. This continues throughout the movie. Every time Thalaivar appears, we jump up and pump our fists. When he announces his name with great style, whether it is “Badshah,” or “Kabali-daa,” we all shout along prayerfully. When his face morphs into a tiger, our eyes riveted on the screen. After a particularly good stunt, when Rajini swings a dozen villains 180 degrees and tosses them aside, I glance at the man next to me, unable to contain my excitement. It is one of my building’s security guys. In that moment, I forget that he is supposed to be at work manning the gate, and not playing hookey. He forgets that I am on the building’s Human Resources Development committee, meant to patrol his patrolling. We are simply two fans enjoying the moment when our beloved Thalaivar has left the abode of the mortals to mingle with the gods. I chew on my red-stained paan and grin at Gagan from Bihar companionably. It is beautiful.
Shoba Narayan plans to watch Kabali about ten times this week.